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« Beyond Academia Career Exploration Conference at UCSB on May 15 | Main | Graduate Students Association 2015 Election Results »
Monday
Apr272015

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Selvi Ersoy Pursues Science 'Theatrically'

Selvi ErsoySelvi Ersoy. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyFifth-year doctoral candidate in microbiology Selvi Ersoy is many things to many people and most of these things are awesome. To women in science and engineering, she’s known as the Co-President of WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering). To her undergraduate students, she’s known as the most enthusiastic TA ever (and winner of the 2014-2015 Academic Senate Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award). To fans of the 2015 Grad Slam, she’s known as the finalist who asked, “Is your doctor killing you?”

Selvi grew up in Cupertino, California (yes, that Cupertino) to a Turkish father and an American mother. She was named Selvi, which means tall and beautiful in Turkish. When someone like me says she’s halfway there, someone else always chimes in “Halfway there? Selvi’s not tall.”

Selvi had plans other than science when she was younger. She loved to dance, to sing, and to participate in musical theater. She scoured schools for theater programs. But after her mother strongly implied that success in the theater arts would be a failed experiment, she went on to pursue science “theatrically,” earning a B.S. in Genetics at UC Irvine with a minor in Medical Anthropology. She received her M.A. in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at UCSB on her way to her doctoral degree.

I had seen Selvi at the Grad Slam preliminary and final rounds and found her to be one of the most animated and funny presenters. She turned out to be just as animated and funny during our interview. We talked about everything from what she learned during her "lost year in grad school" to her yoga progress to why she loves teaching (and why her students love her back). She also had some good advice for future Grad Slam competitors.

What is the one thing people would be most surprised to know about you?

Selvi in CabaretSelvi in Cabaret. She can still do that kick. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyWhen I was growing up I was really, really into musical theater. I loved it. I was in lots of musicals. I loved dancing and I was taking dance lessons, vocal classes, doing drama club, and theater. As a junior in high school, I looked into all the college dance and performance programs. When I told my Mom, she was just like, “No, you’re not going to do that. You need to do something practical.”

So, let’s talk about your research now. Apparently, you kill a lot of mice. How would you describe your research in such a way that doesn’t make you look like a killer?

I study how the host influences bacterial antibiotic resistance and the genetic mechanisms of those changes in bacteria.

Good, concise answer. You participated in the 2015 Grad Slam and made it all the way to the finals. Why did you get involved?

I thought, “What would be more fun than giving a three-minute pitch in front of people and being funny?” That seemed like a blast to me. The cash prizes were also a huge incentive, and clearly a big motivator. I think I would have done it if there weren’t the cash prizes, but I may not have worked so hard.

Getting to preparation. How did you work so hard?

For me, I practiced my pitch every time I was alone. I’d just start saying it out loud. Sometimes I’m in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, saying “Is your doctor killing you?” you know, doing all the hand motions. Thinking, “Oh my god, I hope none of my roommates are hearing this.”

Selvi making it simple at the 2015 Grad Slam Finals. Credit: Sonia Fernandez

What advice you would give future participants so they can win?

I practiced a lot and I tried to get advice from people. After each round, I tried to hear what people were saying to make it clearer. One of the problems with my pitch was that it was a little complicated. I tried so much to simplify it.

If you want to be a champion, just make it as simple as possible.

That’s good advice. On the subject of advice, what advice would you give to an incoming graduate student now that you’re in your fifth year?

Student Spotlight LogoI thought when I started grad school that people were just going to tell me what to do, tell me how my project was going to work, you know, tell me what I’m going to figure out and I would just do x, y, z and be done. Working in a lab, it’s not like that at all. It’s very open-ended. There’s not a clear path. You really need to work early on to figure out what your path will be. That’s your best chance for success.

If you’re going to succeed and finish grad school and escape with your sanity, you have to take everything that you’ve done, everything that didn’t work or that was a setback, and somehow think of it in a positive light. I spent a year doing stuff that just didn’t work. The only way I could reconcile my effort was to say I gained a lot of practice with my bench work, that I now knew how to set up an experiment very efficiently.

So it seems like you learned how to handle stress. How do you relax?

Selvi doing aerial yogaSelvi doing aerial yoga. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyI’m obsessed with yoga! I started in grad school. My labmate said, “Let's do some yoga at the Rec Cen.” It was good exercise. I felt physically stronger. Then I started going to a studio (Better Days Yoga in Goleta). Instead of once a week, I went all the time. When things weren’t working out in my lab, I could go to yoga and see my improvement there.

You recently won the Academic Senate Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. Tell me more about your teaching experience? What has helped you become “outstanding?”

I generally teach upper-division genetics courses: 101 A and B. I also teach the bacterial pathogenesis lab. What I like about teaching, especially when I get to teach genetics and bacterial pathogenesis, is the subject. I find it very interesting.

When I started teaching, I got so excited before my first class. While coming up with my lesson plan, I remember thinking, “How am I going to explain this to my students?” When I got to class, I just said, “Hey everybody, I’m so happy to be here!”

Selvi Ersoy and her labmate Jessica Kubicek-Sutherland at the April 2014 UCSB TEDx conference. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyThat’s something that all my students wrote on my evaluations, even to this day: “Super enthusiastic TA!” I think since I was so excited about teaching, the students got more enthusiastic to be in class.

Because of that, I started getting lots of emails from students asking questions about class. They felt really comfortable emailing me. I wrote back detailed responses about how to solve problems. And then I started getting more personal life questions from students like, “I’m thinking about applying to grad school. What do you recommend?” “What do I do after I graduate?” or “How do I find a research lab?”

I really care about all my students. I try to learn as many names as I can. I make an effort. And I bully them into writing good evaluations. Just kidding. “You better write me good reviews, guys!” (She laughs).

Who has helped you along the way?

Selvi Ersoy in the lab, perfecting her bench work. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyMy parents were the ones that told me, “No to theater. Yes to science.” They always said, “You’re really good at math, you’re really good at science, you should do those things.”  They also had high expectations and I felt I had to meet those expectations. I didn’t hate that. I’m really happy with that guidance.

My labmate Jessica Kubicek-Sutherland also helped break me in to grad school. She told me, “This is what’s going to happen.” What to expect and not to expect. I think if I had been alone, I may have just dropped out. I was really glad to have her there to help me out. I was her little mentee.

Also, my advisor made me grittier and tougher, and I appreciate that. I need to be able to handle things when I’m not perfect, when I screw up.

What is the one thing you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I’m definitely planning on getting a postdoc position for a few years to do my research. Depending on how that goes, I might go on to be a professor. 

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